The hardest harm reduction lesson that I had to learn was to always respect the right of other people to choose their own paths even if the path that they chose was 12 step. If someone is in AA and is successfully abstaining then it doesn’t do anyone any good to argue with them. And if someone thinks that AA is the best way and is failing to successfully abstain–then arguing with them will only make them cling to the 12 steps even harder. What we need to do in both cases is to take more of a Motivational Interviewing type of approach. To the person who believes in AA but finds that it is not working we can say “What can you do right now that will help you to get through this alive.” Or if you are talking to a counselor who endorses the 12 step approach you can say “What can we do to help the clients who are resistant to the 12 step approach?” this is a much better way to bring the harm reduction message to these populations than confrontation. Logic has rarely if ever convinced anyone who already has their mind made up–it just encourages them to create better counterarguments.
I have come to believe that the majority of folks in 12 step programs are decent folks at heart. The problem is that the people who talk the most and the loudest tend to be the rigid and fanatical minority. Sometimes the saner minority are also forced to pay lip-service to AA fundamentalism when they are at meetings because of peer pressure.
The way to get the message across about the glory of harm reduction is not to confront or to argue–and particularly not to waste time confronting the rabid lunatic fringe. Rather one can share one’s personal experiences with the saner majority–particularly if you meet them socially outside of meetings.
I have been reading Dee-Dee Stout’s book and it is amazing how many members of 12 step programs are leaders in delivering harm reduction services. People like Allan Clear who is the director of the harm reduction coalition in New York City and Dee-Dee herself and my needle exchange mentor Rae Eden Frank–it really is possible for some 12 steppers to practice harm reduction in the outside world.
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